Tonight I have seen the best and worst Birmingham politics has to offer, and the whiplash has left me with inner ear trouble.
For the sake of civic pride, let’s start with the best.
I did not expect Birmingham Mayor William Bell to show at the Birmingham Board of Education meeting tonight. Finding an excuse to be elsewhere would have been the politically safe thing to do. I said just that in our print edition this week, and now I’m sorry for it. I owe an apology to the mayor.
What’s more, I certainly didn’t expect to see the city council there, but I was wrong again. A quorum of the councilors arrived at the school board tonight to show its support for Birmingham School Superintendent Craig Witherspoon. They read into the record a resolution they passed unanimously earlier in the day, imploring the board to allow Witherspoon the continue the work he’s done to lead the school system.
It’s important to understand that the stand the mayor and council made broke cleanly with the political tradition in this city of the two governing bodies keeping a church-state separation between city politics and education.
The council and mayor’s decision to take an active role in education was brave and perilous, and they all deserve credit for sticking their necks out.
When board member Emanuel Ford challenged the councilors for why they had not been more active sooner, City Council President Roderick Royal retained his composure. He reminded the board of all the things the city has done to help the school system. Ford questioned why the city had not spent more of its once-cent sales tax increase on education. Royal admitted the city’s mistake in believing former Mayor Larry Langford’s budget projections, and he pointed also to Mayor Bell’s 1999 plan to support the schools with bonds backed by the Birmingham Water Works Board.
When it was Bell’s turn to speak, he told the board that he had once been run out of office for that very project, which still carries the label “the Bell Plan.” Bell said that, when Witherspoon first came to Birmingham, he questioned the superintendent’s intentions to do right by students in the city’s more impoverished areas. But soon after Witherspoon arrived, the two men met face-to-face and Bell apologized for challenging the superintendent’s sincerity. He has since backed a plan proposed by the superintendent to raise city property taxes by 3 mils to support city schools.
Give the superintendent the chance to lead, Bell asked them. If he fails, then everyone would know who to blame — Witherspoon. If not, we’d all be to blame for the school system’s failure. And that failure, the mayor argued, has been killing this city for a generation.
It takes courage to admit when you’re wrong. Unfortunately, that was the best Birmingham politics had to offer Tuesday night.
Next, everyone at the meeting downtown got to see the worst — a freak show that eventually led the city’s representative on the Alabama Board of Education to say she would be discussing with the state board what their “relationship” with Birmingham City Schools should be. (Read: The state must decide now whether to take over the school system.)
I have covered the Birmingham City Council and Jefferson County Commission for 10 years. I’ve had seen members of both ready to cut each other. Mayor Langford once cocked his fist at me in front of a Tuscaloosa federal courthouse, and Bettye Fine Collins once threatened to have me escorted from the building. I thought I’d seen it all, but the dysfunction I saw at the board meeting downtown tonight was more politically grotesque than anything I’ve seen before.
I certainly didn’t expect the five board members who wanted to fire Witherspoon to go quietly, and perhaps the mistake of the Witherspoon supporters was not leaving them a graceful way out. But there was nothing graceful in this gang of five.
Bell could admit he’d been wrong about Witherspoon, but the five board members allied against the superintendent could not.
The five board members who called and cancelled a surprise board meeting on Good Friday didn’t back down. They brought a previously tabled proposal to extend the superintendent’s contract back before the board for a vote. Four supported extending Witherspoon’s contract — Brian Giattina, Phyllis Wyne, April Williams and W. J. Maye. Five opposed the extension — Alana Edwards, Emanuel Ford, Edward Maddox, Tyrone Belcher and Virginia Volker.
Before the vote, a parade of citizens spoke in favor of the superintendent, but Witherspoon’s opponents on the board listened and responded with contempt. The best argument among them came from board member Alana Edwards, who said Witherspoon had not returned her emails. Not exactly a firing offense.
A few members of the public spoke against Witherspoon, but they were outnumbered 10-to-one. One man decried people from Crestwood imposing their opinions on the board, and then said people who don’t live in Birmingham had should have no say in the matter. (For those of you who aren’t from here, Crestwood is a neighborhood in the city limits.)
There was an ugly undertone to their argument — if you aren’t from here, then get the hell out.
Again, I have to give props to the mayor, who said he was encouraged to see such a diverse mix of people from all classes, races and walks of life turn out to support the superintendent. That’s a good thing, he said.
During the afternoon meeting, two parents brought their children with them to the podium, and the crowd laughed when both infants immediately began clutching at the microphone. But the sad thing is that both those parents wanted to put their children — neither of which were yet of school age — in the Birmingham City Schools. They, among others, were determined make this city’s schools a good place for their kids.
Mohandas Gandhi said that poverty is the most subtle form of violence. Is enrolling your children in Birmingham City Schools a subtle form of child abuse?
The school board would have fired Witherspoon outright tonight but for its ignorance of its own rules of order. Board President Maddox moved to fire Witherspoon, but the board’s rules say that the president cannot make such a motion. At first, no other board members were willing to stick their necks that far out. Maddox chided his clique for leaving him hanging. Later, Edwards would finally get her gumption up to make the same motion, but by that point in the meeting the board had already concluded its regular business, and it was too late.
At the end of the meeting board members Wyne and Williams asked that the Alabama Ethics Commission, or some other outside entity, investigate the school board. Maddox’s comment that his alliance had left him hanging was evidence enough that the five anti-Witherspoon members had broken the Alabama Open Meetings Law, she said. Board Members Williams, Giattina and Wyne asked the Alabama Board of Education to “help” the system, and it was clear from them that by “help” they meant “take us over.”
Tonight I have seen the best and worst Birmingham politics has to offer, but the best did not prevail.